Organizations tend to have their own culture, and from what I’ve observed in 38 years in recruiting for them, they invariably wrestle with important culture-related questions: What is our culture? Does it comport or collide with what candidates seek in a working environment, or what we offer recruits and employees? Adding to the complexity, culture can be interpreted differently even within an organization depending on its people’s points of view, priorities, sense of entitlement or security, and financial and psychic remuneration.
But “corporate culture” has many obvious benefits. As an institutional glue, it provides stability and enables retention of employees, especially high-value ones. It facilitates recruitment. It promotes productivity, as those who have “drunk the organization’s Kool-Aid” (to tap a sad cliché) may feel obliged to go the extra mile or redouble their efforts to further the company’s goals. It may provide some psychological benefit in lieu of financial reward, especially when job losses are skyrocketing. In such times, when some employees reflectively ask, “Is this all there is to my job?,” culture may supply the answer, “No, there’s more.”
Defining culture is tricky and can be exhausting and complex. But often, organizations learn surprising things about their culture on the way toward defining it.
The coronavirus pandemic, unprecedented in present-day memory, potentially provides a seismic shift in the way we think about and formulate corporate culture. Consider:
Culture is inherently defined by a shared community of spirit. This “one-ness” is expressed differently by different organizations, but usually includes such pious concepts as dedication to delivering quality product or service, a humanistic and empathetic approach to employees, a recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and similar lofty ideals. A second set of goals, perhaps unstated, is equally as important as the moralistic ones: to be “best in class,” to gain market share, to increase compensation, to dominate in a particular area of expertise, etc. The challenge, then, is to create the one-ness.
Step one toward this goal is to eliminate, to the extent possible, any sense internally of “us versus them,” starting with analyzing whether there is a prevailing sense of “us AND them.” Creating distinctions whose negatives outweigh the positives undermines one-ness. Unnecessary titles, phony social rules, secrecy, “hiding the ball,” and other barriers do not promote a positive group culture.
Step two is to be honest about fairness. Define it. And live by that definition. Analyze breaking points where fairness will be most severely tested. In many organizations, that test comes in the form of who gets promoted and who doesn’t. Promotion can be financial, a title, added responsibility, or admission to an inner circle such as partnership. Be prepared to deal with difficult discussions such as gender, race, homophobia and what goes into the calculus of being one of the cool kids. In some organizations — and this may come as a shock to some people — being physically attractive holds a distinct advantage over those perceived to be less so. Don’t be afraid to bust this myth. A vivid example is that of Stanford University’s embrace of being called “Nerd Nation,” with prized athletic recruits announcing their choice of college wearing retro black rim glasses “repaired” at the nose bridge by white tape. “Nerd Nation” now claims 25 consecutive Directors Cups, awarded to the university with the best combined men’s and women’s athletic departments as measured by year-end standings in various sports.
Step three is to put your best examples of corporate culture center stage. Reward them but analyze them. Can this X Factor be replicated, taught, ingrained? And, to the tough question, should those who lack the X Factor be retained on the basis of other positives that they offer the organization? If the answer is yes, then the X Factor has limits that employees may want defined.
Step four is to pay attention to the observations of people in your organization with the least on the line: support staff, financial and IT personnel. Ask the tough questions such as “If you had to change two things here, what would they be?” This is a better question than “Do you feel respected?”
Step five is to analyze your competition. Question candidates you have failed to win over, especially senior-level candidates whose maturity and experience give them a solid calculus to analyze the comparative strengths and weaknesses of your organization. And for those who did join your team, how did their former employers’ adhesive fail? Money, challenge of work, colleagues, support and resources, platform, vision and management?
Step six is to poll your high-value employees, especially in the upper ranks. This often is best done through an outside service that will promise confidentiality. Equally, this can be done with your clients.
Step seven is to prepare for cynics and doubters. In my experience, culture is best affirmed in word and deed. The messaging must be consistent, and more importantly, it must be sincere. If you don’t believe the message, change it. Successful cultures constantly reassess themselves, asking “Is it working?” “What do we lack?” “How can we improve?” “Have we lost people and why?” Very successful cultures treat attrition extremely seriously and avoid the pass-the-blame of casually interpreting departures as “she just wasn’t happy here.”
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the crisis has presented many companies with a valuable opportunity to ask the tough questions and think critically about their culture and core values. As organizations emerge from this crisis, the steps they take to create and maintain a strong and thoughtful culture will have far-reaching implications.